Zino Davidoff was born on March 11, 1906 in Kiev, Russian Empire, present-day Ukraine. He was the eldest of four children born to tobacco merchant, Henri Davidoff. Even in his own autobiographical writings, the facts on his youth are a bit hazy, as he was quite young during this time and could only piece together some stories of his youth. His parents were either cigar merchants or cigarette manufacturers in Kiev. Fleeing the political turmoil, his parents left some of their family behind and emigrated to Geneva, Switzerland in 1911 for a better life, where they opened their own tobacconist shop in 1912. Finishing school in 1924, Zino went to Latin America to learn about the tobacco trade, spending time in such places as Argentina, Brazil and finally Cuba where he spent two years working on a plantation and first encountered Cuban cigars.
Returning to Switzerland around 1930, he took over his parents’ shop. What had originally been a modest tobacco shop grew into a rich business during and after World War II. Neutral Switzerland was spared much of the havoc wreaked elsewhere in Europe and became a haven for wealthy tobacco customers. Zino was particularly successful in marketing the Hoyo de Monterrey Châteaux Series of Cuban cigars created for Zurich cigar distributor A Dürr Co. in the 1940s and named after great Bordeaux wines. Around this time, Zino is also credited by many as having invented the first desktop cigar humidor, in order to preserve cigars at the same conditions of humidity and temperature under which they were rolled in Havana. Davidoff also had success writing several books on cigar smoking and Cuban cigar brands.
In 1970, Zino sold his small but highly successful tobacco shop in Geneva to the Max Oettinger Company. Zino stayed on as Davidoff’s ambassador until his death in 1994 at the age of 87. He was survived by his wife, a daughter and his three siblings.
The Max Oettiger Company, which took over Davidoff, was founded in 1875 and was one of the first importers of Havana cigars to Europe, selling its wares in France, Germany and Switzerland. Headed by the Swiss-born Ernst Schneider, Oettiger paid in excess of $1 million for the Davidoff shop, considered by many at the time to be an exorbitant price.
IT is half past two, and Edward Sahakian is settling into a leather chair in the Davidoff shop, on the corner of London’s Jermyn Street. Autumn sunlight sparkles on the plate-glass display cabinets, caresses the opulent coloured lacquer of humidors, and gleams on the gold watch chain suspended from Mr Sahakian’s lapel. He is immaculately tailored, his blue shirt with white collar set off by a discretely yellow tie. We are about to indulge in an activity that, in enclosed public places, can only legally be performed in prisons, hotel bedrooms and specialist tobacconist shops: ‘sampling’ a cigar.
We compose our features. Cigar sampling is a serious business. Mr Sahakian warns: ‘You cannot give the impression of enjoying it.’ After a lunch of oysters and sole which involved a bottle of Grand Cru Chablis, this takes some effort. But there are nuances to Mr Sahakian’s cigars which bring rewards. Like a good wine, they have been given time to mature. ‘Some may be more than 10 years old,’ he confides, contemplating the ash at the end of his Davidoff 25th Anniversary Special Selection. There is little advantage to the tobacconist in this practice, and the differences of flavour are subtle. I am in the presence not merely of a connoisseur, but a romantic.
Cigars are schizophrenic. The Davidoff brand, made with Swiss precision in the Dominican Republic, pursues the consistency expressed in the packaging; the cigars come wrapped in cellophane and the box has a little clip to keep the lid down, rather than a protruding nail. Cuban cigars are subject to Castro’s system of government, with the requests of importers bearing little rela-tion to the cigars that Habanos, the State tobacco company, produces. Mr Sahakian’s holy of holies is stocked with the best of both manufacturing schools.
I try an El Rey del Mondo robusto from Havana, an imposing yet not ludicrous cigar, the box showing a chariot-riding Carib Indian in a headdress (the King of the World, presumably). It was chance which brought Mr Sahakian to London. An Armenian by heritage, he came from his native Iran to celebrate Christmas in 1978. When he and his wife, Greta, were here, crowds burnt down the three breweries owned by his family. He has never been back. Instead, he joined the 12,000-strong London Armenian community. Although politics made it too difficult for him to visit the country of his ancestors until recently, he feels pride in its new role as an independent, if precarious state. For two years, his daughter Caroline worked as assistant to the Armenian ambassador in London.
Like many Armenians, the Sahakians live a short walk from their children’s houses (brother and sister live next door to each other) in Belgravia. Every June, Mr Sahakian migrates to the Côte d’Azur, where he has an apartment. It has an associated ritual. ‘I drive down in an open-topped car, taking the D roads. I arrive from the Channel tunnel about 8am, and stop for a coffee at the first petrol station on the A26. That’s where I light up my first cigar. I look forward to that cigar for the whole of autumn, winter and spring.’
It is as well that Mr Sahakian advocates the ‘magical’ charms of smoking en plein air, as smokers are increasingly having to resort to it: for example, on the smoking terraces created by some West End clubs. (Without outdoor space, this has not been an option for White’s, up St James’s Street from the Davidoff shop, so some members drop by for a postprandial sample.) Since the smoking ban was imposed in July, Mr Sahakian has noticed a rise in the sale of chubbier, shorter cigars lengths that can be more conveniently smoked outdoors.
‘Cigars relax you,’ Mr Sahakian was recently told by his doctor. ‘They are good for your blood pressure.’ Who wouldn’t want a doctor like that? But there may be something in it. Davidoff’s senior shop assistant is Douglas Elliott, born over his parents’ Camberwell tobacconist’s shop 83 years ago, and still selling cigars every day. Having sampled, I find a spring in my step as Mr Sahakian, with his ineff-able courtesy, opens the door. King of the World indeed.
By: Clive Aslet/Countrylife – Published: 11 October 2001